Tag Archives: Elizabeth Arden

‘War Paint’ and ‘Indecent’: Two views of New York City history on Broadway

History has always been a critical component of theater, especially in musicals, where period sets and costumes assist in creating other worlds on stage quite unlike our normal one. But last year, with Hamilton: The Musical, the stage phenomenon which won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and a million other awards), history became a rock star.

Or rather, historical figures, even those with seemingly little contemporary vigor, had the ability to inspire a new generation, if reinterpreted by the right talents.

The musical categories for the 71st Annual Tony Awards, announced on Tuesday, are a bit more competitive this year than last, when Hamilton took home eleven awards.  The Best Musical category is an especially diverse cross-section of subjects in terms of time and place — one contemporary tale (Dear Evan Hansen), one from recent history (Come From Away, set right after September 11, 2001), a European historical fable (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, based on Tolstoy) and, of course, a musical that is literally about not having any history (Groundhog Day, based on the movie).

Joan Marcus/Polk & Co

The new musical War Paint is this year’s musical representative of New York City history, replaying the story of Fifth Avenue’s most famous retail rivalry between cosmetics icons Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. While War Paint didn’t make the Best Musical cut, its two main stars (Christine Ebersole as Arden, Patti Lupone as Rubinstein) are competing for Best Performance By An Actress In A Musical. Just as Arden and Rubinstein themselves would have wanted!

Arden, arriving from Canada, and Rubinstein, from Poland by way of Australia, set up their companies in New York in the 1910s. But the musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, actually starts in the 1930s with their careers firmly established on Fifth Avenue, their competing salons bustling with society women.

Why skip past their origin stories? War Paint is more of a showcase than a show, designed to do something very rare, providing an opportunity for two great female musical stars to take the stage at the same time.  (Quick: Name another musical with two female leads where they are not playing witches.)  Because, practically speaking, you want established stars in your musical, the story must start with Arden and Rubinstein already at the top of their game.

Joan Marcus/Polk and Co

The musical escorts the pair through the mid-century — past the changing roles of women in World War II, past the television revolution — as their once-chic brand names struggle to change with the times. On occasion the story pauses to infuse the grand, sweeping narrative with small biographical details.

If you heard our recent podcast on the subject, you’ll know that Arden and Rubinstein never actually met (at least, as the legend goes). This too works to the musical’s benefit, giving each star separate storylines that veer into each other just enough, never letting one upstage the other.

Lupone and Ebersole are tremendous. How could they not be? Lupone playfully transitions Rubinstein from a slinking figure of sophisticated grace to an irascible curmudgeon whose body language aches with history (and several dozen pounds of jewelry). Ebersole, with superbly fading cheer, slowly transformed Arden’s legendary confidence to wistfulness and then — in a fantasy coda where the two women actually do meet — into a graceful humility.

If you want to hear more about the story of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, listen to our podcast The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue. Most of our show takes place before the events of the musical, so consider it a prequel of sorts.

There’s also a bit of New York City history in contention for the Tony Award for Best Play. Joining Oslo, Sweat and A Doll’s House, Part 2 in the category is an intriguing and unconventional transfer from the Off-Broadway stage — Indecent written by Paula Vogel.

Carol Rosegg/Indedent

This very musical play recounts the drama surrounding the 1923 Broadway production of God of Vengeance, a controversial Yiddish play that had been well received in downtown New York theaters, but scandalized audiences when it moved uptown. Its cast and crew were charged with obscenity — the show features lesbian protagonists — and its playwright Sholem Asch ostracized. (He spends his time cloistered in Staten Island.)

This artful production feels like a graphic novel brought to life, with projected text hovering over a barren stage and its players sometimes disintegrating into dust. (It’s a weird and spooky stage trick.) Despite feeling very abstract and removed from circumstances at times, Indecent makes a point to root God of Vengeance within Broadway history, vibrantly repeating a couple offending scenes from the play.

Below: A letter from the playwright which ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 11, 1923

 

Hopefully the point isn’t lost on its audience; the original production was shut down on a similar stage at the old Apollo Theater (at 223 West 42nd Street), just a few blocks south of the Cort Theatre, Indecent‘s present home.  The cast, brilliantly directed by Rebecca Taichman (who scored a Tony nomination for Best Director), flaunts those very moments from Vengeance that proper society once thought offensive.

If you’re in the mood to hear more about scandalous Broadway shows from the 1920s, listen to our podcast Diamond Girl: Mae West — Sex on Broadway. West and the cast of Sex was arrested just a few years after God of Vengeance on similar charges.

 

 

 

 

The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue: Elizabeth Arden & Helena Rubinstein

PODCAST Fifth Avenue’s role in the ‘revolution’ of beauty, as led by Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, New York’s boldest businesswomen of the Jazz Age.

The Midtown Manhattan stretch of Fifth Avenue, once known for its ensemble of extravagant mansions owned by the Gilded Age’s wealthiest families, went through an astonishing makeover one hundred years ago. Many lavish abodes of the rich were turned into exclusive retail boutiques, catering to the very sorts of people who once lived here.

On the forefront of this transformation were two women from very different backgrounds. Elizabeth Arden was a Canadian entrepreneur, looking to establish her business in the growing city of New York. Helena Rubinstein, from Poland by way of Australia, already owned an established company and looked to Manhattan as a way to anchor her business in America.

Their products — beauty! Creams, lotions, ointments and cleansers. Then later: eye-liners, rouges, lipsticks, mascaras.

In this episode we observe the growing independence of American woman and the changing beauty standards which arose in the 1910s and 20s, bringing ‘the painted face’ into the mainstream.

And it’s in large part thanks to these two extraordinary businesswomen, crafting two parallel empires in a corporate framework usually reserved for men.

ALSO: Theda Bara, Estee Lauder, Max Factor and a whole lot of sheep and horses!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #226: THE BEAUTY BOSSES OF FIFTH AVENUE — ELIZABETH ARDEN AND HELENA RUBINSTEIN

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FURTHER LISTENING — Check out our spin-off podcast The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences, in particular, the episode on the invention of the bikini — The Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Revolution

FURTHER READING AND VIEWING: If you liked this episode, you might also like:

Hope In A Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture by Kathy Peiss

Helena Rubinstein: The Woman Who Invented Beauty by Michèle Fitoussi

“The Powder and the Glory” Documentary produced, written, and directed by Ann Carol Grossman & Arnie Reisman

War Paint: Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry by Lindy Woodhead


A few images of Fifth Avenue between 50th and 57th, in the years of transition — from residential to retail.

1898

MCNY

1904

Museum of the City of New York

 

1922 — Fifth Avenue and 57th Street

The Collis Huntington mansion on 57th and Fifth Avenue. Helena Rubinstein moved her salon in here in the mid 1920s.

Elizabeth Arden, circa 1915, near the start of her career.

Helena Rubenstein, photo date 1924

An example of Helena’s Valaze cream, made from lanolin

 

A selection of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein vintage ads, courtesy Vintage Ad Browser

 

A variety of facial treatments from a Helena Rubinstein salon, circa 1941

Nina Leen/Photography

 

Helena employed many of her family members.  Mala Rubinstein, Helena Rubinstein’s niece, shows the ladies how beauty is done at the 715 Fifth Avenue salon

Courtesy NYT Photograph by Bradford Robotham

The commercial featured on this week’s show!

A very affected presentation, but this video does show Rubinstein in action!

The “beauty process” was in vogue by the 1930s as evidenced by this short film starring Hollywood film actress Constance Bennett.

Helena Rubinstein latched onto Hollywood celebrities both as a way to inspire beauty regiment — and, of course, to sell more products.

For Theda Bara, Helena even sold a line of ‘vamp’ make-up, tying into her scandalous reputation. (Read more about Theda Bara here.)

 

Even Marilyn Monroe was an Elizabeth Arden fan, frequently popping into the New York salon.